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Evaluating NBC's Olympics Coverage at the Halfway Mark in PyeongChang

NBC Sports Chairman Mark Lazarus addresses questions from viewers about NBC's coverage of the PyeongChang 2018 Olympics.

As he has done with this column at at multiple Olympics around the halfway point, NBC Sports Chairman Mark Lazarus addressed some questions viewers have have had regarding NBC’s coverage of the PyeongChang Games. You might not like his answers—in fact, I am sure many of you will not—but he is accountable to those who write about his company and that gets great respect here. Lazarus spoke to Sports Illustrated for 30 minutes on Sunday afternoon (Monday morning his time) from his office at the International Broadcasting Centre in PyeongChang.

SI: How would you self-evaluate your coverage so far on all platforms?

Lazarus: I am extremely proud of our coverage. I think our quality is uncompromised by the tremendous amount of quantity we are doing on all of our platforms. Is it perfect? No. We strive to be perfect every show but every show you reflect back and see where we could have done better, especially In this live environment. But I am extremely proud on the production side and the team led by Jim Bell (executive producer of NBC Olympics), Joe Gesue (Senior Vice President, Production, Olympics) and Becky Chatman (Vice President and Coordinating Producer of Olympic Production). It is an extraordinary quantity and I feel our quality is unmatched in anything in sport.

SI: As of early last week your coverage trailed the Sochi Olympics in viewership by roughly 6%. Have those numbers changed?

Lazarus: We are off 6% in primetime but we are up in what we are calling prime-plus, what you would historically know as late night, is up 28%. Our streaming numbers are through the roof. Media consumption has changed a lot and what the Olympics has shown is a resiliency over a four year period that I think is unmatched in primetime television given the decline collectively the broadcast networks have seen in the primetime window.

SI: Are your Total Audience Delivery numbers meeting NBC's ratings guarantees to advertisers?

Lazarus: Yes. As of now we expect to meet all of our ratings guarantees.

SI: How much has hockey viewership been hurt by the NHL players not being there?

Lazarus: A bit. It is early in the men’s tournament and we have not seen the big games yet but we are off roughly in the high 20s or low 30s. It has been affected. The [broadcast] windows are pretty similar so it is close to an apples to apples comparison. Listen, I think it is bad for hockey everywhere. Our numbers are off and if you look at the RSN numbers for every NHL team over this week-long period, at least when I looked at it, all but two teams were off versus a year ago in this window. So it is not good for anybody’s hockey ratings.

SI: You made a huge investment in Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir a couple of years ago to make them your No. 1 figure skating team. That decision has proven to be wise. They are the rare sports broadcasting team who has gotten near-universal praise for their work. How satisfying is it for you to see them excelling in what is the most important Olympic sport for NBC, at least on viewership terms?

Lazarus: Tara and Johnny are exceptional broadcasters and I don’t want to leave out [host] Terry Gannon who I think is a key part of that trio because of the role he plays in keeping everything moving in a good direction. They are pleasing to the viewers, they have fun, they are fun and they have a little bit of flamboyance coming through the television. But when you listen to their analysis, that is what separates them and makes them so good. They are just very insightful and honest and direct. We are very pleased. We think they are very good for our audience. I do want to say our longtime analyst, Scott Hamilton, is doing a lot of coverage on NBCSN and doing a daily show called “Olympic Ice” with Liam McHugh and Tanith White. We have a tremendous stable of figure skating analysts. It is always fun when someone breaks through and I have been part of it in my career with Charles Barkley too. [He previously headed up Turner Sports.] This feels just like that and it’s fun.


SI: This is not a Monday Morning quarterback question because I would have made the decision to leave the women’s Super-G when you did to show Adam Rippon’s free skate. But I do want to get your viewpoint as the head of NBC Sports on your network pulling out of the women’s Super-G before the conclusion of the race and declaring that Austria’s Anna Veith had won the gold…You saw what happened: A once-in-generation event, crazy fluke when Ester Ledecka of the Czech Republic pulled off a miracle win.

Lazarus: As you pointed out it is extremely uncommon for someone that far down the starting position lineup to contend for a medal let alone win the gold. We were surprised, as was the entire ski world. Some characterized it as one of the greatest upsets in the Olympics. I think our esteemed colleague Mr. [Al] Michaels might take exception given his eyewitness account of Miracle on Ice. But it was an incredible feat and a complete surprise. We obviously captured it, and went back to it. We felt it was important that we leave the live coverage when we thought we were done and go to the figure skating and Adam Rippon’s skate. In hindsight, when we left, we should have left room in the broadcast for a miracle to happen, and I think we were a touch too definitive. But I think we went back quickly and showed the run and characterized it as the exceptional feat that it was. We strive to be perfect but we are not always perfect. I think we did the best we could under that miracle circumstance. I think we would have been doing our audience a disservice had we stayed for a long time and missed what was becoming an important story around figure skating and something our others viewers cared about. That is the luxury and curse of live.

SI: How would you assess NBC Sports’s coverage of sexual harassment allegations against Shaun White amid the coverage of his halfpipe win, especially given how popular his Olympic runs have been for NBC?

Laazrus: It was not a story coming into the Games for anybody, including your publication and most publications. We all talked about his redemption and coming back from an athletic point of view and we covered it that same way coming into the Games. It only became a story publicly again when he won and that press conference took place where he gave not a great answer and I think he has since said that. NBC News, which was next on deck with him, covered it extensively. Savannah Guthrie interviewed him and asked him questions directly and Nightly News covered it and discussed his issues. We did not have him due to scheduling and other things for a post-victory interview once he left the competition venue. But if we had, we would have asked him the questions that he deserved to be asked.

Something we have thought about in reflection is we used him very extensively in our promotional campaign leading up to the Games, including a one-minute Super Bowl promotion which is street value $10 million. We ran many millions of dollars of other promotion. We didn’t get one inquiry from media but put that aside. We did not get one email, tweet, text or phone call from viewers, the general public, saying how could you do that? We are a pretty big target. We take a lot of flack. We are big boys and girls. But I think the collective consciousness of this was extremely low if it even existed until that press conference.

SI: Is there anything you already know at this point from your coverage that you would like to implement for Tokyo in 2020?

Lazarus: There is a slight difference in the time zone. Tokyo is 13 hours ahead of the East Coast as opposed to 14 here. We are going to look very careful at what our primetime hours will consist of and whether they will be 7-11 p.m. ET, 8-12 a.m. ET, 7-10 p.m. ET. We will evaluate where we can put the best live coverage to the most people. We do those kind of reflections after every games. Having three Asian games in a row allows us to really do some learning’s form the time zones we are in and try to implement them on a going forward basis. One of things I really like what we have done here and I think we will be able to do over the next two Games is we have been able to be dynamic with our primetime shows. We have hit a lot of venues. We come in and out of coverage in smaller bites but we hit more venues… I like the dynamic nature of that because it is the spirit of the Olympics.

SI: What is your daily schedule like?

Lazarus: I get up around 4:30 or 4:45 a.m. and get over to the IBC (International Broadcast Center) by 6:00 a.m. I try to work out some days. But sometimes I get up at 2:30 a.m. because the body clock gets turned around over here. We have a business and logistics meeting at 6:00 a.m. every morning to make sure everything is running smoothly with the Games in terms of getting our people where they need to be or other issues. Then I go production meetings as the day gets going. I’ll get back to the hotel at 8:00 p.m. or 9:00 p.m. usually. Most of the day I am at the IBC. I have been to a few of our compounds—I try to get to every compound each week just to touch base with production managers, producers and talent. That’s to show appreciation and support. I have been to one event only—the U.S. vs. Canada in women’s hockey, which was great. Then I have some meetings and meals with the IOC or OBS or other broadcasters from around the world.

SI: Are there any active athletes who have caught your attention at these Olympics as someone who can be a future broadcaster for you four years from now? Obviously someone like Lindsey Vonn given her profile, accomplishment and age seems like an obvious candidate.

Lazarus: Lindsey would be an interesting person if four years from now that is what she was interested in. Adam Rippon could be interesting in some sort of role. The one thing I just want to emphasize is that is not a referendum on anyone. So I am not saying in any way shape or form we somehow want to replace Johnny Weir. This is not a coaching carousel around here. We don’t move people around. When we have someone good and when the audience reacts as they do whether it is Rowdy Gaines, Johnny or Mike Tirico, we are not looking to trade in or trade up. We think we have the best there is and if we can enhance it, that is our goal. But we are not looking for cheap changes.

SI: Has Mike Tirico been told that he is indeed the primetime host beyond PyeongChang?

Lazarus: Mike is our primetime host. This is not a training ground. This is not an audition. This is not a tryout. Mike is our primetime host. And I expect him to be our primetime host for many generations to come.


( examines some of the week’s most notable sports media stories)

1. The photo of the father greets the son each time the son sets foot inside the radio station. How large is the shadow?

When you walk inside the newsroom of WAER-FM—a commercial-free, Syracuse, N.Y.-based NPR station that’s licensed to the University and airs Orange football, basketball and men’s lacrosse—you can’t miss the images of Ian Eagle alongside other well-known 88.3 FM alums such as Marv Albert, Marty Glickman, Sean McDonough and Dave Pasch. When you head to the basement of the station, you’ll find the WAER Hall of Fame wall, where Eagle’s induction plaque from August 2013 hangs next to Mike Tirico, another famous Syracuse broadcasting alum.

“I walk by it every day and I am reminded where I come from,” said Noah Eagle, a 21-year-old Syracuse University junior with a last name familiar to millions of sports fans.

On Saturday father and son experienced what promises to be one of the most memorable days of their lives. As Noah and his broadcasting partner, Sam Rubinoff, called the Syracuse-Miami men’s basketball game at the Watsco Center in Miami for WAER-FM, Ian broadcast the game for CBS alongside analyst Bill Raftery.

After writing a story on it last Friday, I emailed both over the weekend to get how the day went:

Noah: “The experience for me was incredible. I knew it would be a special day, but I didn’t realize just how special. The pregame coverage was very cool for me, but when it came time for tip, I knew I still needed to focus on the task at hand—calling a good, clean game. I’m extremely thankful for the opportunity. It is certainly a day I will never forget.”

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Ian: “As a dad it was an unforgettable day. As a broadcaster it was an absolute blast. All the stars aligned to make that moment possible, I was so proud of how Noah handled himself both on and off the air. During timeouts I found myself glancing over at his broadcast position and thinking back to my days sitting in that same seat. Having the great Bill Raftery next to me was an added bonus; he's known Noah literally since the day he was born. On Saturday, not only did they briefly share a microphone but later that night they also shared a beer [don't worry, both are of legal age].”

1a. Deadspin video editor Tim Burke went in-depth on NBC’s miss on the women’s Super-G. He also has the incredible call on BBC.

1b. What a great call by Leigh Diffey on Yun Sung-Bin's skeleton gold medal winning run. He’s been among the broadcasting stars of these Games.

1c. Great camera work by TNT to get a clear view of a ball careening off the foot of Team Steph player Joel Embiid with the game tied at 144-144 and under two minutes remaining. The refs missed the call but TNT nailed it.

1d. Sports Business Daily assistant managing editor Austin Karp reported that Fox drew a 5.1 overnight rating for Daytona 500, a likely new ratings low for the event. Karp said Fox was down 22% from the 2017 race.

2. Episode 164 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features guest Jonathan Abrams, a Bleacher Report writer and the author of the new book, “All The Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire.” In this podcast, Abrams discusses how he came to write an oral history book of the acclaimed HBO series, “The Wire;” the process of conducting interviews for the book; how he initially had trouble getting cast members after Michael B. Jordan and what changed; his Amtrak interview with The Wire creator David Simon; how he efficiently transcribed all the interviews; the one person he wanted to interview for the book, but didn't get the chance to; the frustration among the creators and some of the actors that nothing has really changed since The Wire; a discussion on which season is the best and why; how the actors feel about the show; a discussion about show writer George Pelecanos writing the famous line for Snoop when Michael kills her in the car (“How’s my hair look, Mike?”); how the show had such an impact with so little episodes, how J.D. Williams knew that his Bodie character would be killed; and much more. To listen to the podcast in full, check it out on Apple Podcasts and Stitcher.

3. Sports Business Daily writer John Ourand went inside the economics of Fox’s new Thursday Night Football deal.

3a. Per Austin Karp of Sports Business Daily, heading into All-Star weekend, NBA game viewership, ABC ESPN, TNT and NBA TV were on pace to have its best NBA regular season in six years. NBA games are averaging 1.4 million viewers across the board, up 15% from the same point last season. Karp also reported that NBA games on RSNs were up 9% to date. On the breakouts, Karp reported that NBA games on TNT are averaging 1.9 million viewers, up 20% from the same point last year. ESPN is averaging 1.7 million viewers, up 10%. NBA TV games are averaging 354,000 viewers to date, up 20%. All demos are up too.

4. Sports pieces of note:

• Great work from Toronto Star sports columnist Bruce Arthur: As Sven Kramer cracked, Canada's Ted-Jan Bloemen began to cry, overcome with joy. In the stands, his wife Marlinde began to cry, too. But she was overcome by something else.

• From Justin Tinsley of The Undefeated: Marvin Gaye performed the most soulful national anthem ever.

• Via The Nation’s Dave Zirin and Jules Boycoff: The farce of the Olympic Athletes From Russia.

• ESPN’s Mina Kimes on the NFL’s ratings issues.

• Via The New York Times’s Karen Crouse‏: Before he became an Olympian, Adam Rippon starved himself to be competitive, and he's not alone among male skaters.

• The Athletic’s Jon Krawczynski: The Timberwolves will never forget Flip Saunders.

• From Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports: Shaun White tried to cast his gold-medal run at the PyeongChang Games as the end to a redemptive arc. Across the world, it was playing out as the latest #MeToo story.

• Sportsnet’s Michael Grange on Dwane Casey and his coaching staff.

• SI’s Tim Layden on a first-ever Olympian from his hometown of Whitehall, N.Y.

• From The Chronicle of Higher Education: Inside Auburn’s Secret Effort to Advance an Athlete-Friendly Curriculum.

• Another one from Arthur: Eric Radford was a bullied gay kid in a northern gold-mine hockey town, and now he’s the first openly gay male gold medalist at a Winter Olympics.

• The Buffalo News columnist Bucky Gleason on St. Bonaventure’s win over No. 16 Rhode Island.

Non-sports pieces of note:

• From Molly McKew, for Wired: Did Russia Affect The 2016 Election? It’s Now Undeniable.

• From The Washington Post: “Rob Porter is my ex-husband. Here’s what you should know about abuse.”

• From Wired: Inside The Two Years That Shook Facebook—and the World.

• Via author James Andrew Miller: The Anthony Pellicano prison interview.

• Anne Helen Peterson, writing for CJR, on female journalists being targeted and harassed. I hope people read and share.

• From Jonathan Albright: “Trolls on Twitter: How Mainstream and Local News Outlets Were Used to Drive a Polarized News Agenda”

• From Chico Harlan of The Washington Post: Seconds before she was ready to take off on an Olympic skeleton race, Katie Uhlaender spotted her estranged mother, somebody she hadn't seen or spoken to in four years.

• Via Wired’s May Jeong: The Final Terrible Voyage of Nautlius.

5. Longtime Blue Jays broadcaster Jerry Howarth retired after 36 seasons.

5a. ESPN basketball analyst Doris Burke was named the 2018 Curt Gowdy Award winner for broadcasting by the Basketball Hall of Fame.

5b. Episode 165 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features a sports media roundtable with Sports Business Daily media writer John Ourand and USA Today staff writer A.J. Perez. In this podcast, the panel discusses NBC’s coverage of the Pyeongchang Games; how to evaluate that primetime viewership is down six percent; whether NBC executives should be happy with the ratings; NBC Sports’s responsibility when it comes to geopolitical or stories that involve social justice or criminality; the impact of the NHL players being out of the Olympics; what Fox getting the NFL Draft means for ESPN; ESPN’s NFL future; the declining Daytona 500 ratings; what NASCAR can do to turn its viewership issues around; the New York Post’s story on Fox and ESPN making a play for Peyton Manning as a broadcaster; why newspapers have dropped sports media writers over the last decade, and much more. To listen to the podcast in full, check it out on Apple Podcasts and Stitcher.